Jo Mora’s story begins as that of an artistically talented immigrant to the U.S. The story of one of his artistic efforts, the wooden statue of Father Junipero Serra in Carmel, is complicated.
Born to a father of Catalan ancestry and a mother who was French, Mora learned to speak several languages as he discovered the world. Early on, he showed interest in the history of America and particularly of its Indigenous peoples. Motivated by his father’s interest in the first people of Uruguay, where Mora was born, he turned his focus to Native Americans he befriended; he lived for almost three years with Hopi and Navajo people in Arizona. He learned their languages and celebrated their cultures through his artwork.
Throughout Mora’s life, he was able to care for his wife and two children solely through his art. Over his career, this included numerous depictions of Native Americans which remain in public and private locations to this day. He honored his subjects with authenticity and grace, whether it be a heroic bronze or a small pencil drawing. He did not shy away from telling the history of Indigenous people, as is evidenced in his drawing of a Native American locked in stocks in his book Californios or of people being “led” to baptisms as seen on his cenotaph in honor of Father Serra in the Carmel Mission.
Had Mora been commissioned to honor Carmel’s Indigenous peoples, instead of Father Serra, I have no doubt he would have gladly done so. He did not always have control over the content of commissions that came his way and was often subject to committees in charge of projects.
While this has long been a justification for the creation of these works, we’re now revisiting the reasons pieces like this are prominently and publicly displayed. We should keep them, rather than destroy them – their creation and installation itself tells a story, even as they glorify some elements of history and obscure others – but they belong in places like museums, churches or libraries.
There are issues in society much larger than a singular piece of art. I am not suggesting Carmel’s Serra statue be destroyed, but as we continue to examine our history and ourselves, that we need to remain open to looking at our past and examine the full story of America’s past.
I support the removal of Jo Mora’s artistic Serra effort in Carmel. It should permanently remain out of public display; perhaps the Carmel Mission is willing to add it to their collection, where it can be appreciated as people see fit.
As it stood, the statue of Serra was conspicuously one-sided in the scope of history. Should one wander around the repurposed Monterey County Superior Courthouse in Salinas today, the decorative elements created by Jo Mora depict the wide breath of California and local history. It is a building that speaks, and as it stands, is an excellent learning tool in understanding our history, warts and all.